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World Literature and Neurobiology

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Facebook group "Rethinking World Literature" hosts a series of interdisciplinary discussions around the topic of what constitutes "world literature."  The Evolving Systems project on Serendip hosts a series of interdisciplinary discussions exploring the common usefulness in a wide array of contexts, academic and otherwise, of emergent and evolving systems ideas.  The conversation documented below is archived from a discussion on the Rethinking World Literature Facebook site and will be added to as that discussion continues. A second discussion archive on "From Evolving Systems to World Literature and Back Again" is available here

The conversation started February 13, 2010.  Wai Chee Dimock is involved with the Rethinking World Literature group; Paul Grobstein, Anne Dalke, and Alice Lesnick are participants in the Evolving Systems project.  Individual posts can be linked to using the numbers in parentheses (eg /exchange/node/6279#1). 

This archive is being made available on Serendip to give wider and more open access to  to Rethinking World Literature discussions, as well as because of its relevance to the the Evolving Systems project and to Serendip's ongoing exploration of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary discussion generally.  For more on the latter, see On Beyond Disciplinarity and Education: Between Two Cultures.  

Visitors are warmly invited to add their own thoughts to this conversation using the on-line forum below.  People interested in joining the "Rethinking World Literature" discussions are invited to go to Facebook, search on "Rethinking World Literature" and put in a request to join.   


Anne Dalke - February 13, 2010 (1)

I have been mulling over Paul's invitation!/topic.php?uid=184235448148&topic=12807
for some thoughts "about how literature is 'embedded' in the brain." [see here for the archived version].  I assume the short answer is that literature constitutes our most enduring form of pattern-making: it offers reliable, satisfying ways of organizing the multiplicity of experience into traceable, manageable causes and their effects (also thereby -- to pick up on some of the language used earlier in the Evolving Systems thread -- both turning the "fine-grained" into the "long-distance," and the "long-distance" into the "fine-grained": as particulars become patterned, micro becomes macro, and vice versa).

In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Taleb emphasizes the dangers of this compulsive storytelling impulse; he argues that our human insistence on reducing the dimensions of complexity, imposing order on chaos, and identifying causes for the effects we observe around us can -- increasingly does -- have explosive consequences, since it "rules out sources of uncertainty and drives us to a misunderstanding of the fabric of the world." I think Taleb is spot-on in his critique of our inclination to over-do on this count: to construct stories that are causally simple, in a world where interactions are so complex:

Which brings us smack up to Wai Chee's counter-invitation, to think of literature (I assume she means here literature conceived of as a world system) as "a kind of empirical evidence for the multi-directionality of the neural networks." One of the things that both Wai Chee's and Paul's thinking has done for my own is entice me to entice my students into looking in all directions for the predecessors and successors -- relatives of all sorts -- of any given text we might have on the table. Yes, pair across genres; lay The Autobiography of Gertrude Stein next to The Book of Salt; yes, too, pair Stein's work with that of her philosophy professor and mentor, William James, so that the seemingly wierd play of association that is (say) her "Tender Buttons" begins to make sense, in light of his notions of "the dance" of ideas as a "somewhat mutilated and altered" copy "of the order of phenomena."

In a course I'm teaching this semester (can you tell?) on the James family, I find myself constructing these links not only among texts, but among other cultural forms; we will begin our discussion of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, for instance, by reviewing the Renaissance tradition of oil portraits of ladies, into which James so clearly inserts his novel; and end it by turning to contemporary portraiture that upends the tradition, as well as films, like Jane Campion's costume-drama-y riff on the novel, which begins with a series of voice(s)-over and black-and-white "portraits" of a multicultural group of modern-day young women, who both resemble and diverge from James's heroine, in their visions of what romantic love will bring them.

For me, this multiply-directed mode of teaching-and-thinking is a contribution to constructing "non-competitive," "non-authoritative" relations among ourselves and the texts we teach: it lets us explore the "partial, fractional, complexly modified forms" of culture, builds in "oscillation" between "micro and macro" without trying to construct a causal story or tradition that leads clearly from one to the next. Would you say, Paul, that there something in the brain --the "multi-directionality of neural networks"?--that "nudges" us in this direction, too, away from simple stories or single causes, to be seeking out always alternative trajectories?

The other large question that arises for me now is this: in this newly evolving world of the study of literature, once we refuse the conventional boundaries of space and time, of nation and era, where from will come the constraints? How to select a'tall (for a syllabus, for a talk, for a paper)? Where from the" architecture that produces different patterns of movements and interactions"?

I was particularly struck, in the invitation of Paul's student to think about what neurobiology, art and literature have to offer one another, by the passage she cited from Borges, which--claiming that "To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract"--offered a character "virtually incapable" of this activity, who could see "nothing but" (and so was seeing always again and newly) "nothing but particulars."


Paul Grobstein - February 15,  2010 (2)

Nice set of issues, directly relevant, I think, both to this conversation and the one it takes off from. Yep, I think there is "something in the brain" that inclines us to "look in all directions." Its what I tend these days to call the "cognitive unconscious," and what Marvin Minsky has called the "society of mind": our diverse array of processing modules that are constantly each checking the world and our relation to it without our knowing about it, each fully content to notice things here and there without worrying too much about their relations to one another.

AND there is "something in the brain" that inclines us to "ignore differences ... to generalize, to abstract." That's consciousness, what we tend to be more aware of/pay more attention to, what I call the "story teller" (for more on this bipartite brain notion see

Yes, there is a risk of "compulsive story telling." AND there's a risk of losing "constraints," of an absence of "architecture." The nice thing, as I see it, is that the brain is organized with an internal set of checks and balances: the cognitive unconscious is there to check the story teller and the story teller to check the cognitive unconscious. To put it differently, if we learn to use both effectively, we can have our cake and eat it too.

The trick here is to accept both elements of the brain for their assets and avoid seeing either as deficient. And build from assets, allowing them to shape and reshape our conception not only of what works in any given case but, more generally, of what it means to work, what the task itself is. For more along these lines, see In literature, let's indeed allow our brains to embrace BOTH the "fine-grained" AND the "long distance" and let that in turn helps us revise our conception of what literary studies are all about. Ditto re evolving systems.


Wai Chee Dimock -  February 15, 2010 (3)

I think story telling is fine, so long as it is not taken to be uni-causal, privileging one explanation and blinding us to the magnitude and dynamism of the equally probable. We could tell a story about Henry James using his repressed sexuality as a prism (as Colm Tobin does), but we could tell another story using Renaissance portraiture, as Anne does. They're not in competition, as far as I can see, since the two stories seem to be on two different planes -- non-adjacent, rather than mutually exclusive.


Paul: I know this isn't exactly your definition of the "cognitive unconscious," but I wonder if it could be assimilated to your account of the brain's processing modules, embarked on parallel pathways and not interfering with one another?


Paul Grobstein - February 15,  2010 (4)

Interesting issue indeed. Its an occupational hazard (and probably a necessary feature) of the story teller to privilege one story over others. Check out the page of ambiguous figures at Its hard at best, and often impossible, to see more than one interpretation at a time. One can, however, learn to recognize that all stories have equally good alternatives (cf and, and use the interplay between THAT story and the cognitive unconscious (which has no conception there is a "right" story) to create/entertain/value alternative possibilities ("non-adjacent, rather than mutually exclusive" = incomensurable?).


Wai Chee Dimock, February 16, 2010 (5)

I just took a look at those ambiguous figures -- allowing for alternate views and indeed inviting us to switch from one to the another. (I think Gombrich also talks about this phenomenon in Art and Illusion: what looks like a rabbit from one angle can look like a duck from another).

To go back to Anne's earlier observations about how literature might be "embedded" in the brain, I'm tempted to say that perhaps literary studies should have a built-in principle of alternating / switching, more closely approximating our brain processes. Rather than taking one text as the unit of study, perhaps the "unit" could be a pair of texts, forcing us to go back and forth, first seeing one thing, then another (for instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, then Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, a spoof on Uncle Tom's Cabin). This might be one way to make sure that literary studies would be routed through our "cognitive unconscious" and be replenished by it.


Paul Grobstein, February 20, 2010 (6)

Yep, Gombrich indeed used ambiguous figures as a way to suggest that the history of painting could be seen as an ongoing exploration of possibilities ( And yes, not only lliterary studies but inquiry in general) might well do better by "more closely approximating our brain processes," including not only conscious but unconscious ones (cf Non-foundationalism as a guide to inquiry as a .doc file at

Wai Chee Dimmock, March 1, 2010 (7)

I'm still intrigued by the notion of the "cognitive unconscious." It seems an oxymoron -- we ordinarily take cognition to be, by definition, conscious. But it now appears that consciousness is actually a very late development in the evolution of humans; it's neither robust nor fundamental. I'm thinking of Antonio D'Amasio's argument in Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens. So maybe the unconscious is where we should start out from, not necessarily the Freudian unconscious, the home of the repressed, but simply an important part of our brain processes that we have no knowledge of, that isn't articulated as thought.
Paul Grobstein, March 1, 2010 (8)
I like this. A lot. There are two rich terrains to be exploring. One is outside ourselves; its the terrain that not only scientists but also humanists most commonly recognize, the land of not only rocks and birds but also of books and paintings. The other equally rich terrain for exploring is inside ourselves. No, its not the Freudian unconscious. Its much bigger, much more interesting than that. And it plays a huge role in not only the interpretation but also the creation of many things outside ourselves, certainly of books and paintings. The conscious, that of which we have knowledge/can articulate, what I call the story teller, sits atop a much more elaborate and creative entity that is yet to be seriously mapped; it is that about ourselves of which we are unaware or, in my lingo, "treeness" (/sci_cult/lesswrong/descartes/) or the frog brain or the cognitive unconscious.

So, here's a possibly interesting challenge for rethinking world literature. One can, I think, make a reasonable argument that an awareness of the distinction between the story teller and the cognitive unconscious became prominent in canonical western literature in the early part of the twentieth century (Dadism, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, etc). What's the situation in other literature, both non-western and western non-canonical? Or, for that matter, in earlier western literature? Do all literatures at some point or another make a point of a story teller/frog brain distinction or is that an oddity of recent western canonical literature?
Wai Chee Dimock, March 5, 2010 (9)
The story teller/ frog brain distinction is a great way to think about the work of Walt Whitman, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, among others. I would associate the frog brain -- the cognitive unconscious -- not with any thematics, but with syntactical structures and rhythmic repetitions. These features seem to have been present in world lit from the very first. In Gilgamesh, in the astonishing race through the tunnel against the journey of the sun, these lines are repeated 12 times, not so much telling a story as punctuating time:
  When he had gone one double hour,
Dense was the darkness, no light was there,
It would not let him look behind him.
When he had gone two double hours,
Dense was the darkness, no light was there,
It would not let him look behind him.
When he had gone three double hours...
Anne Dalke, March 6, 2010 (10)
Or, to flip the question? Have non-Western literatures (about which I know next-to-nothing) perhaps been acknowledging the role of the unconscious for a much longer time than Euro-American literature has done? Were Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, et. al. "discovering," or figuring, or representing, in the early 20th century, what Asian cultures (for instance) have acknowledged for millenia?

I'm thinking here of a recent conversation in our Evolving Systems group, /exchange/evolsys/OOO
in which we were exploring the new work on "object-oriented ontology"--attending to "treeness," trying to re-orient our perception of the world away from the human-centric. One member of the group, who works in East Asian studies, spoke of a long history of such practices in (for example) Japanese Buddhism. His evocation of the "enlightenment of insentients" would constitute a MAJOR extension to the project of acknowledging the unconscious....


Wai Chee Dimock, March 9, 2010 (11)
My sense is that the "cognitive unconscious" is species-wide rather than culture-specific (is that right, Paul?) So, rather than associating it with non-Western literatures, I'd rather study its traces in a set of brain functions that don't rise to the threshold of consciousness, and are pre-linguistic for the most part (as Antonio D'Amasio argues), but remain nonetheless deep-rooted and evolutionarily robust -- a much larger "pool" of syntactical possibilities than what is eventually articulated as speech.


Paul Grobstein, March 9, 2010 (12)
Glad the pot is bubbling. OK if I stir it a bit before it settles too much? In the interests both of thinking about literature and about the brain?

I like Wai Chee's Gilgamesh a lot, suspect it is indeed largely an expression of the cognitive unconscious. And I agree with Anne that one can find similar things in the I Ching, for example (I'm not sure though that I'd use the "enlightenment of insentients" as an argument for this: see /exchange/evolsys/OOO#comment-116631 ). My guess is one can probably find them in some of the Old Testament as well (Song of Solomon?). My original suggestion wasn't that the cognitive unconscious first appears in early to mid twentieth century western literature but that during that time there is a distinctive recognition of the difference between the cognitive unconscious and the story teller, so authors made a point of contrasting the two. Do people know of other examples of that? Magic realism perhaps?

Back to frog brain writing, and what we expect of it, how we identify it. That's a set of questions where I'm hoping neurobiology could learn something from world literature as well as vice versa. Yes, I think "syntactical structures and rhythmic repetitions" are relevant. But my guess would be that "thematics" is not irrelevant, that one can identity themes like, perhaps, temporal persistance and things grading into one another. And I would guess as well that there are more "literary" characteristics as well: a lot of loose ends, somewhat abrupt beginnings and endings, arbitrary associations, little attention to character development, and ... ? Does this connect to any formal and/or intuitive ways people might subdivide world literature?

I would indeed, as per Wai-Chee, expect less "culture-specific" character in frog literature but I wouldn't expect it to be absent entirely. The cognitive unconscious is clearly impacted in a variety of ways by culture, as evidenced most dramatically by the fact that it is capable of linguistic expression. A nice example of frog linguistic expression might be "speaking in tongues." And yes, my intuition would be frog speech draws on an unusually wide pool of both thematic and "syntactical possibilities" relative to story teller literature. Its interesting to think about how one would detect this.


Wai Chee Dimock, March 15, 2010 (13)
Just a small footnote: one place to detect the frog brain at work might be in those moments ( in Thoreau, Kafka, many others) when animals are seen or heard half externally and half internally, a kind of low-common-denominator rendition of the cognitive unconscious.

Here's Thoreau actually hearing the "trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, passing "the cup with the ejaculation tr-r-oonk, tr-r-oonk, tr-r-oonk! and straightway comes over the water from some distant cover the same password repeated... tr-r-oonk! and each in his turn repeats the same down to the least distended, leakiest, and flabbiest paunched." Frog linguistic expression as the cross-species origins of the sounds of poetry?


Paul Grobstein, March 15, 2010 (14)
Interesting idea. Had myself in mind some poetry as relatively pure expression of the cognitive unconscious. Is interesting as well to think of "cross-species" in this regard. Another intuition is that the cognitive unconscious tends not to make species distinctions (as it tends not to make cultural ones, but with the same caveat as above). So one is looking for linguistic expressions that might produce meaningful/similar effects not only in people of different cultures but also in at least some organisms other than humans? Along which track ... things that are "meaningful" also to human babies?


Anne Dalke, March 16, 2010 (15)
Children's lit might play a large role here also. I'm about to teach Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which is full of puns, where all the animals speak...and where the cognitive unconscious is certainly a-boil!

So: are we working our way towards some alternative organization of world literature, that attends less to time- or place-based origins, more to where from in the brain it arises....?


Wai Chee Dimock, March 20, 2010 (16)
Yea, it would be interesting to try out an alternative organization of world literature based on brain activity, with a large provision for the unthought, unarticulated -- the cognitive unconscious as the most robust common ground for the human species. Different cultures (and different kinds of literature) would then acquire their special features by how that common ground is differentially articulated into speech. In our "Evolving Systems" discussion last Tuesday, Paul mentioned that the brain itself does not register time; it is the cultural construction of the "before" and "after" that allows us to experience time as a sequence, a succession of events. So maybe this could be one way to bring back cultural specificity -- breaking down the cognitive unconscious, localizing it and redistributing it according to its variations in different environments: the different permutations of time in New York vs. a monastery in Tibet, and in children's lit with animals (say) vs. in Kafka's The Metamorphosis?


Paul Grobstein, March 21, 2010 (17)
"are we working our way towards some alternative organization of world literature, that attends less to time- or place-based origins, more to where from in the brain it arises....? (Anne, above, March 16)

"Different cultures (and different kinds of literature) would then acquire their special features by how that common ground is differentially articulated into speech." (Wai-Chee, above, March 20)

Very intrigued. Count me in. An exploration not only not place-constrained but also not time-constrained by the present. One that asks not how things got to be the way they are but rather how both what has been and what are is part of on ongoing exploration of potential, and hence of of what might yet be.

In addition to providing a fresh perspective, admitting into consideration things that might not have been otherwise considered and opening new questions to explore, the program appeals to me because it emphasizes the significance of not only commonality but also idiosyncracy. And has, I think, a built in antidote against not only spatial/temporal hubris but also against the problems inherent in any form of identity politics.

Along these lines, I saw a retrospective exhibit of William Kentridge at MOMA yesterday. A South African, Kentridge's "work combines the political with the poetic" and "is often imbued with dreamy, lyrical undertones" ( Among other things, Kentridge uses animation with lots of morphing of images from one thing to quite different things. I couldn't help but see it as another expression of the dynamic interplay between the particularities of times/places experienced consciously and a more fluid timeless/spaceless quality suggestive of the cognitive unconscious.

Maybe our new program for "world literature" would encourage bringing into play not only the written/spoken word but also other forms of artistic expression as well?


Wai Chee Dimock, March 21, 2010 (18)
I just uploaded two images of William Kentridge -- they do allow for idiosyncrasy as well as commonality; it's intriguing to read them as dynamic accounts of the cognitive unconscious. In one, a man is melting into (or emerging out of) of a "genetic pool"; in the other, human beings are dancing shadows, always in motion and always distorted to some degree, open to the input of countless tangles and networks. So yes, the arts are powerful allies for world literature, giving us visualizations of a formless world and an embodied self that are counterfactual, counterintuitive, but not dismisssible.


Paul Grobstein, March 21, 2010 (19)
Like that a lot. Yes, "counterfactual" (different from our existing conscious understandings) and "counterintuitive" (different from our existing unconscious understandings) ... "but not dismissable". And therefore openings to futures yet to be conceived.

"This is what change looks like" ... Barack Obama, 12:17 am, March 22, 2010.


Wai Chee Dimock, March 26, 2010 (20)
I just learned that William Kentridge is the Artistic Director for Shostakovich's opera, The Nose, now playing at the Met. The opera is based on Nikolai Gogol’s story of the same title, published in 1837, about the adventures of a man who wakes up one day to find that his nose has left his face and gone walking around St Petersburg.

In his interpretation of Gogol and Shostakovich, Kentridge projects the story forward to the 1917 Russian Revolution, then Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. But he also looks backward: to Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, both of which have influenced Gogol. And he uses excerpts from Russian newspapers, clips from Russian films of the twenties and thirties, pages from Russian encyclopedias, and parts of the transcript from a 1937 meeting of the Russian Communist Party, in which Nikolai Bukharin was interrogated -- all inflected by the history of South Africa.

For me, this counts as an exemplary instance of world lit -- with texts commingling with music and the visual arts, and each benefiting from being analyzed on the lowest common denominator they share: the neuroscience of brain activity, both in the assembling of this material, and in our multi-sensory experience of its effects.


Paul Grobstein, March 27, 2010 (21)
  In principal, certainly. In practice, perhaps. I've haven't seen The Nose but the account of it makes me think of plays by Tom Stoppard. Some of them (particularly Arcadia) work for me at a gut level, the "lowest common denominator." Others (eg The Coast of Utopia) ... don't. The assembling of the material seems labored, a product of the conscious rather than the unconscious, and so accessible (to me at least) only through a prior activation of the conscious via the reading of extended historical program notes.

Its interesting to think about this in light of the conversation during Wai Chee's visit to our Evolving Systems project (/exchange/evolsys/dimock). Historical events can be brought into the present by a conscious "folding of time" on the part of the playwright and the audience. Alternatively, they can be part of the present because of their existence in the timeless unconscious of one or both. Maybe its the conscious folding of time that gives the labored feeling to some of Stoppard's plays? And its that that in turn requires extensive program notes for an audience to "get" them?

A literature of the unconscious is one in which the assemblies can be both put together and appreciated in the absence of explicit reference to time in terms other than simply present, no longer present, not yet present?


Wai Chee Dimock, March 30, 2010 (22)

Yes, the conscious folding of time can give a labored feeling, but when it works -- as I think it does in Stoppard's Rock 'n Roll -- the effect can be quite wonderful. In this play, Cambridge, England and Prague are woven into the same fabric by the poetry of Sappho, the music of Pink Floyd and the Czech rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, with the "cognitive unconscious" of aging and dying being recycled and reaffirmed as the conscious (and fragile) birth of democracy. The no-longer-present and the not-yet-present seem to be experienced directly by the senses, as bodily decay and also as durable sounds, without time being explicitly calibrated...


Alice Lesnick, March 30, 2010 (23)

"Back to frog brain writing, and what we expect of it, how we identify it. That's a set of questions where I'm hoping neurobiology could learn something from world literature as well as vice versa. Yes, I think "syntactical structures and rhythmic repetitions" are relevant. But my guess would be that "thematics" is not irrelevant, that one can identity themes like, perhaps, temporal persistance and things grading into one another." (Paul)

I appreciate this rich dialogue and the invitation to join it, which I do here, wading . . .

Things grading into one another, via processes and with results not readily or fully articulable, in a context where things (i.e., species, eras) are not distinct as they are in consciousness: Is this a definition of change? With such a definition in hand, could people more usefully prompt and explore changes? More easily live without defending against them?

I'm interested in possible reciprocal learning between neurobiology and world literature. What would happen if we called it "language" or "writing and speaking" instead of world literature? I'm wondering about how words themselves are free agents, dancing shadows (to use Wai Chee's term above) -- continuous with our frog lives, baby lives, animal lives . . . , and with the sounds of others. In a sense, all writing is frog brain writing. Every word a metaphor, every metaphor a toy, every pun an opening of space between. In the space is everything and everyone -- and the cognitive unconscious is alert to this?


Paul Grobstein, March 30, 2010 (24)

Interesting issue posed by Alice above. Yes, in one sense "all writing is frog brain writing." There is no way to write (or speak or paint or ... anything else) without doing so via the frog brain (the cognitive unconscious). The story teller (consciousness) has no direct access to means of action, ie muscles, and so must work through the frog brain, which does. So all writing (all acting) necessarily bears frog brain traces. Similarly, there is no way to read (or view or ... anything else) except via the frog brain. All sensory inputs must pass through the frog brain to reach the story teller/consciousness. In this sense, indeed "Every word a metaphor, every metaphor a toy, every pun an opening of the space between." We can look for the frog brain (in ourselves and others) in anything written/painted/etc and we reveal some aspect of it in everything we write/paint/perform.

That said, there is clearly more of the frog brain in some writings (or paintings or etc) than in others, and some writings/paintings/etc are of more interest to frog brains than others. Indeed, one might make an argument that "world literature" (or any other named literature) has a tendency to favor that which is less "frog brained" over that which is more so. Things that bear names are things that are similar across individuals and/or across time. The frog brain is not only timeless but also idiosyncratic and solipsistic, so it is less likely by itself to create things that fit into social/cultural categories.

On the other hand, maybe a recognition of frog brain writing would over time lead to a redefinition of world literature so it includes more of "writing and speaking"?    

Wai Chee Dimock, April 1, 2010 (25)

Your comments make me think that there should be more lyricism in our method: since our arguments can never be as exact or as logical as we hope, some tolerance for fuzziness -- how things grade into one another -- might be one way to give maximum play to the frog brain, which is probably also to say, one way to make allowances for our cognitive limits, making room in our working hypotheses for not fully predictable outcomes.

I 'm not sure, though (going back to Alice's earlier point) if I'm ready to jettison "world literature" altogether. What I like about the term is that, while it's a deliberate rejoinder to the established practice of "national literature," it remains an unknown quantum to a large extent, its nature, scope, and theaters of action still in the process of being tried out, not fully knowable to us at this point. So I'd like to think that "world literature" is a frog-brained concept, unavoidably fuzzy, and that maybe some of its heuristic value lies in just that fuzziness?


Paul Grobstein, April 1, 2010 (26)

I heard "world literature" as you describe it, a frog brain "rejoinder to the established practice" and so indeed "still in the process of being tried out ... fuzzy." Maybe that's a generally important notion. By listening to the frog brain, one creates new ideas/categories, not out of an aspiration to reach a final description but rather as a way of opening new spaces to be explored by, in part, the frog brain. Once the ideas/categories have ceased to be fuzzy, they have served their heuristic value and its time to discard them, replace them with new ones?


Alice Lesnick, April 1, 2010 (27)

Wai Chee, I appreciate the idea that "world literature" is an unknown quantum and greatly respect your willingness to study something in the process of being tried out. As a scholar and teacher of educational studies, I find that resonant with my sense of teaching and learning, as well. I'm not sure I would identify the core contrast as between fuzziness and precision. When I think of the lyrical -- music, dance, poetry -- I think of motion, dynamism in contrast to stillness, verb over noun. Paul, I don't know if you'd agree with this, but my sense of the frog brain is that it does not so much "jettison" or "discard" as simply drift or dive or shimmy on.


Wai Chee Dimock, April 1, 2010 (28)

This is a great way to put it: world literature is fuzzy because it is a verb rather than a noun, in transit, its contours deformed and re-formed by motion. To any stationary observer (such as ourselves), it's always going to look like a blur, a spectrum of variants not resolvable to a fixed and definable set of attributes. If it ever becomes an entrenched concept (I bet this would never happen during our lifetime!), it would probably need to cede its analytic primacy to another term, though still hovering in the vicinity as a baseline condition...


Anne Dalke, April 1, 2010 (29)

This morning (April 1, 2010) The New York Times ran an article by Patricia Cohen, "Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know that You Know":
reporting that the brain is the Next Big Thing in literary studies: "Getting to the root of people's fascination with like 'mapping wonderland.'"

Most of the research reported on in the article focuses not on what we've been exploring here, the construction of a "literature of the unconscious," but rather on how the human brain perceives and processes literature. Nonetheless, it's clear that there are other laborers in the vineyard, who think that "fiction gives us insight into evolution."

So back to the task @ hand. Wai Chee, I'm confused. "World literature" is a noun phrase, and it's (to me) quite a ponderous one, which explicitly refuses national borders (while searching for bridges among them). Alice's suggested alternative--'writing and speaking'--now those are verbs that seem in motion....

I think they seem so resonant to me because we're now quite deep into negotiations, in our neck of the woods, about the construction and relation of our various language and literature departments. "World literature" is perceived as a threat to them all, as they dig into the specialness of each of their particular locations.

I've also been meaning to ask how that concept--or the more general notion of literature as not necessarily anchored in place or time, but more open to motion--has been received by scholars in the Native traditions, which seem so (increasingly?) place-based, so insistent on nation-building...?


Wai Chee Dimock, April 2, 2010 (30)

I don't think we're talking about a "literature of the unconscious" in the Freudian sense, but a literature of the frog brain -- the "cognitive unconscious" -- which I take to be the "primitive," low-common-denominator, generative conditions for thought, rather than the propositional contents of specific acts of thinking.

These low-common-denominator brain activities would cast light on any human action. And I think "action" is really what literature is, or what it starts out being. Our mistake is to ossify it, turning it into a solid object, a finalized product. So, in emphasizing the "verb" aspect rather than the "noun" aspect -- both of the composed text and of our reading experience -- we're just restoring the original and ongoing dynamicism. This doesn't mean that a text is not anchored to a place; it just means that we can't fix it permanently to that place, since it does move around in time...

Paul Grobstein, April 5, 2010 (31)

"dynamism in contrast to stillness, verb over noun" (Alice, 1 April)

"more open to motion" (Anne, 1 April)

"If it ever becomes an entrenched concept ... it would probably need to cede its analytic primacy to another term, though still hovering in the vicinity as a baseline condition" (Wai Chee, 1 April)
  Strikes me that our World Literature and Neurobiology branch from Evolving Systems and World Literature has has, among other things, looped back towards the trunk, to the question of what defines projects like Evolving Systems and Rethinking World Literature. An interest in "dynamism," the "less entrenched," "more open to motion" ? It would be worth thinking more about that. The "various language and literature departments" (as exemplars of disciplines generally) would of course express a feeling that they are quite "open to motion". What's different about that motion from the motion that Evolving Systems/Rethinking World Literature aspires to? What makes some things at some times "baseline" and others "verbs" instead of "nouns"? Will put a note in the trunk conversation to encourage further thought about this issue there.

In the meanwhile, I'm intrigued by verbs rather than nouns, by fuzziness, by "a spectrum of events not resolvable to a fixed and definable set of attributes" as characteristics of the frog brain/cognitive unconscious, and hence of a literature reflecting it. Where such a "literature" actually originates in "action" (Alice's "writing and speaking") and only subsequently becomes "ossified," converted to nouns, objects, "finalized products."

This set of ideas helps me think more not only about the frog brain but also about its relation to consciousness. Ossifications ("categories") can indeed be problematic and get in the way of some kinds of motion, but they can also be generative, creating a platform from which new kinds of motion can occur. What this suggests to me is that consciousness can play two roles, one as aid to the fluidity of the unconscious and the other as an inhibitor of that fluidity. Yes, as per Alice above, this has interesting implications for education. And, as per /exchange/node/6655#comment-117301 and /exchange/grobstein/drexel10#comment-117188, implications for social/cultural life in general?

Maybe the trick here is to insist on continual looping between the frog brain and the conscious? Not to valorize either but instead to use the frog brain as the antidote to ossification and consciousness as a tool for conceiving new directions of motion that the frog brain wouldn't have noticed?


Alice Lesnick, April 6, 2010 (32)

I agree that the frog brain notices, and doesn't notice, differently than consciousness does. The frog brain is oddly non-selective and can be slow to move -- maybe because it is so commodious, it can't be counted on to turn easily or quickly, though sometimes it does. Sometimes it's like an agile swimmer, sometimes a scaffold holding up a constellation of spent stars. Consciousness notices and doesn't notice differently from this -- less commodious and more susceptible to other consciousnesses, more able to try to move or shift focus and offer the frog brain new inputs (which it may or may not notice).


Wai Chee Dimock, April 7, 2010 (33)

I really like this account of the frog brain as commodious, slow-moving, and non-selective. Something like this does seem evolutionarily robust, but also needing the additional supplement of consciousness, in order to make quick, focused decisions. If this is indeed how the mind works, we might have two different distributional maps for what we notice and fail to notice -- not so much the left and right sides of the brain, but two orders of receptivity, two different patterns of attention. I wonder what kind of literary theory could be built on this landscape?


Alice Lesnick, April 7, 2010 (34)

Yeah, maybe what I am thinking of as the frog brain can be pictured as an enormous frog! -- one that can stay still for a long while, then move suddenly and swiftly. I'm wondering if quickness and focus might actually be characteristics the frog brain sometimes shares with consciousness -- at least some of the time. Sometimes, the unconscious is very sharply focused, but on something only it can "see." And sometimes it apprehends things very quickly.

For me, the experience of reading novels and poetry, like the experience of certain conversations, feels like being in a space where consciousness and the cognitive unconscious, and shared subjectivities, meet and play, tease each other out, or off their accustomed dimes. This has something to do with the way in which language is both mine/inside and not mind/outside, and the way literature works in this bothness.


Wai Chee Dimock, April 11, 2010 (35)


Yes, quickness and focus are not necessarily incompatible with commodiousness, a combination that might turn out to be maximized in literature (probably because of the alternation of scale possible here). And I'd like to think that these brain activities are not strictly anthropocentric, not strictly revolving around the concept of the "human," as Wallace Stevens suggests:
The palm at the end of the mind.
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.


Anne Dalke, April 13, 2010 (36)


Wai Chee speaks movingly, above, of "two orders of receptivity, two different patterns of attention," and wonders "what kind of literary theory could be built on this landscape?" I'd say one that does not revolve strictly around "the literary."

I've just finished an essay by Mark Hansen, a professor of "literature and the arts of the moving image" @ Duke, who is coming to speak to the Faculty Working Group in American Studies @ Haverford this week. In this piece, "Ubiquitous Sensation or the Autonomy of the Peripheral," Hansen describes the work of a series of artists who are making what might well be prototypical--even exemplary--of the sorts of "arts of the unconscious" we've been imagining here. He includes Natalie Jeremijenko's "Dangling String" (beautifully articulated by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, in Designing Calm Technology, , as a design that moves us from periphery to center and back again; Warren Neidich's art, , which tunes sensory material to the requirements of the nervous system; and Olafur Eliasson's panoramic color installations that play conscious and unconscious temporalities against one another.

All these aim, Hansen argues, "beneath the threshold of conscious perception" catalyzing sensations of which we are not aware: such media activates sensing that is "proximately ecstatic, out-of-sync, and out-of-scale with conscious experience." Hansen is not just suggesting that we might be more effectively "reached" subconsciously by visual images rather than by words, but rather that artists such as Jeremijenko, Neidich and Eliasson actually activate pre-conscious sensations, those which are by definition "imperceptible," prior to perception.

My head is swimming as I try to think about this order of receptivity, not really a pattern of attention, but that which happens peripherally, without my attention....


Wai Chee Dimock, April 16, 2010 (37)

Mark Hansen's essay sounds very interesting-- yes, the brain activity that is "proximately ecstatic, out-of-sync, and out-of-scale with conscious experience" is not solely literary; it can be called forth by a variety of art forms. And it could be that visual images and music are actually more evocative than words. But I suspect all three are on the same continuum, offering sense data that can be mapped (or housed) by two different orders of receptivity: read either as random or as patterned, either as articulate shapes in the foreground, or as an amorphous pool, unfocused and unresolved, on the peripheries of our attention.

In fact, a cross-media approach seems one of the unexpected implications of neurobiology: the fact that literature, the visual arts, and music are on the same continuum -- that they share the same oscillation across the threshold of the perceived and the unperceived -- suggests that there is a common basis of research here, that there might be even some elemental connection between the literary and the non-literary...

I've added images by Jeremijenko and Eliasson to our group photos.


Paul Grobstein, April 23, 2010 (38)

Like a lot an "oscillation across the threshold of the perceived and unperceived." And do think we will find more similarities among literature, visual arts, music (and, for that matter, both the non-literary and science) when we look at them more from the perspective of the unconscious. But, some cautionary notes, as per discussions above.

One doesn't want to valorize the unconscious/frog brain in the interests of devalorize the conscious. They are both valuable parts of how we interact with/think about the world; each draws from and feeds the other whether we are aware of it or not.

One also ought not to expect that the differences between the frog brain and the conscious will map easily onto the dichotomies our conscious most readily uses. The frog brain is almost certainly less "anthropocentric" than is conscious but anthropocentrism derives from the frog brain (as does all conscious experience) and so there are likely to be some elements of it there.

Finally (for the moment) we should probably be cautious about the very notion of a dichotomy, itself probably more a construction of consciousness than of the frog brain. The frog brain consists of a lot of different elements (it is a "society of mind" in Marvin Minsky's terms) and displays substantially less of a concern for internal consistency/coherence than does consciousness. So there may well be more than just "two orders of receptivity."


Wai Chee Dimock, May 2, 2010 (39)

Just want to follow up on your last point about Marvin Minsky's "society of mind." Minsky theorizes that the phenomenon of "mind" emerges out of the internal diversities and interactions within the physical brain, that intelligence comes not from discrete component parts, but from the networks -- the nodes and links -- connecting them. This "society" paradigm does seem to move us away from any conscious/ unconscious dichotomy. It points to interactive pathways that are self-multiplying and self-updating, with no fixed center, varying in their field strengths and their orders of receptivity from one node to another, unconstrained by the need for consistency.

This also seems a great analogy for world literature, highlighting the network-dependency of this phenomenon, and moving us away from the local /global,, metropolitan/peripheral dichotomies...


Paul Grobstein, May 2, 2010 (40)

"no fixed center ... unconstrained by the need for consistency" is indeed a good characterization of Minsky, the frog brain, and probably in those respects a good metaphor for World Literature as well.

The human brain though is, Minsky notwithstanding, in an important way more than a "society of mind." It includes a "story teller" or "fuschia dot" (cf as well. Consciousness, understood in these terms, is very much concerned with, among other things, "consistency" and is constantly attempting to make sense of things in terms of "fixed centers." It is in fact just another node in the society of mind but it means that the human mind/brain can't be fully made sense of in terms solely of a fully diffuse/emergent system. There are significant elements of focus, coherence, and intentionality involved as well. And since World Literature is (I presume) the product of brains, one won't be able to fully appreciate it either without some attention to these matters. Its because of this that there may be a useful distinction to be drawn between "frog brain" literature (in which coherence/focus/intentionality are less evident) and other literature.

There is an interesting cross connect between this conversation and an exploration of "Chance" in which it is emerging that "consistency" is an important element of some mind/brain/inquiry processes and a less important part of others. Cf. /exchange/evolsys/chance10#comment-118382.


To be continued


alesnick's picture

greetings, appreciations, words

"Back to frog brain writing, and what we expect of it, how we identify it. That's a set of questions where I'm hoping neurobiology could learn something from world literature as well as vice versa. Yes, I think "syntactical structures and rhythmic repetitions" are relevant. But my guess would be that "thematics" is not irrelevant, that one can identity themes like, perhaps, temporal persistance and things grading into one another."  

I appreciate this rich dialogue and the invitation to join it, which I do here, wading . . .

Things grading into one another, via processes and with results not readily or fully articulable, in a context where things (i.e., species, eras) are not distinct as they are in consciousness: Is this a definition of change?  With such a definition in hand, could people more usefully prompt and explore changes?  More easily live without defending against them?

I'm interested in possible reciprocal learning between neurobiology and world literature.  What would happen if we called it "language" or "writing and speaking"  instead of world literature?  I'm wondering about how words themselves are free agents, dancing shadows (to use Wai Chee's term above) -- continuous with our frog lives, baby lives, animal lives . . . , and with the sounds of others.  that in a sense, all writing is frog brain writing.  Every word a metaphor, every metaphor a toy, every pun an opening of space between.  In the space is everything and everyone -- and the cognitive unconscious is alert to this?




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